Like the planes he flew, Reus proves to be invincible
Retired Air Force Maj. Joseph H. Reus stands beside the iconic Memphis Belle Flying Fortress at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. Reus volunteers as a machinist at the museum.
SENIOR LIFE Maria Sonnenberg
The mighty Boeing B17F Flying Fortress Memphis Belle, the star of the film of the same name, rumbled to a stop in front of the hangar at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum and out alighted a small man grinning from ear to ear.
It was hard to judge who was more of a star, for both the man and the awe-inspiring plane were crowd magnets.
For retired United States Air Force Maj. Joseph H. Reus, the short “souvenir” flight he had just enjoyed on the Belle was a reunion of sorts, since the Titusville resident spent many hours during World War II navigating similar impressive aircraft, such as the B-24 Liberator.
At 95, Reus is a card-carrying member of the greatest generation. His 23 years in the service saw him through World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He left home at 16 and apprenticed as a machinist before joining the military, where he was selected for navigation training.
His assignment to crew training took him to the 703rd. Bomb Squadron (Heavy) of the 445th. Bomb Group in Sioux City, Iowa, where Reus discovered that his commander was none other than James “Jimmy” Stewart, the legendary Hollywood icon of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame.
Based out of Tibenham in Norfolk, England, Reus first entered combat in December 1943. His first mission almost turned out to be his last. Following a successful bombing of a chemical plant at Lauterbach, Germany, Reus and the rest of the crew were forced to ditch in the middle of the English Channel. The aircraft had sustained extensive flak damage on the return flight. He was one of only six in the 10-man crew to survive, but his injuries required hospitalization for two months.
“We ditched in the middle of the winter, and we were lucky that a fishing boat saw our flares,” Reus said.
Eight weeks later, Reus was back up in the air, but things again didn’t go so well. On his second mission, his B-24J aircraft was shot down and everyone but one man parachuted to safety.
Unfortunately, they were still over the German Reich, so off to Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany went Reus as a Kreigsgefangener, or prisoner of war. He was liberated by Soviet ground forces in May 1945, flying home in an aircraft much like the Memphis Belle. Once settled in Camp Lucky Strike in France, Gen. Eisenhower treated Reus and his fellow POWs to lunch.
Back in the States, Reus resumed his flying career in the United States Army Air Corps and later in the newly formed Air Force. He flew assignments during the Cold War and racked up 38 combat missions over Korea.
Returning from his second war, Reus embraced the Jet Age and became a navigator in the Boeing B-47 Stratojet Bomber Program with the Strategic Air Command. This then radically new aircraft was featured in the movie “Strategic Air Command,” which starred Reus’ former boss, Jimmy Stewart.
During the Vietnam War, Reus flew missions in the B-52D Stratofortress.
In 1965, he retired after 24 years of active service in three wars. He walked away with two Distinguished Flying Crosses, numerous Air Medals, two Purple Hearts, plus a drawerful of awards for his valor and airmanship.
At 95, he shows no sign of slowing down. His book, “Kriegsgefangener,” recounts his prisoner of war days. He continues his love affairs with warbirds, volunteering a couple of days a week as a machinist for the museum.
“You have to keep walking and keep working,” he said.